Exclusive: Hartlepool’s Middleton Grange secures B&M to fill empty BHS spot
Hartlepool has become one of the first places in the country to secure a new occupant for its empty BHS store, I can reveal. Value retailer B&M has signed up to take over the prominent 24,000 sq ft unit in the Middleton Grange shopping centre. Jobs are being advertised from today, and posters have gone up in the store’s windows.
It’s especially good news for Hartlepool, as its BHS store only opened in January 2012 to fill the space that had previously housed Woolworths.
Scunthorpe, which I visited back in June, is the only other location in the UK to have the double bad luck of BHS taking over its old Woolies, only for it to go bust a few years down the line.
— Graham Soult (@soult) June 22, 2016
What’s happening to old BHS sites so far?
B&M’s opening demonstrates that Hartlepool’s retail appeal can’t be in bad shape, given that very few of the 163 BHS sites vacated this summer have found new occupants yet.
Next’s takeover of the 85,000 sq ft Intu Metrocentre BHS site, announced last week, is probably the biggest letting so far, while Jersey (Flannels), Worthing (Poundworld Extra) and Llandudno (Primark) are among the other openings announced to date.
Several others, such as Carlisle – where Primark opened in the former BHS last week – are a little different, as these are sites that BHS disposed of strategically, before it collapsed, as it sought to generate income and bolster its turnaround prospects.
— Graham Soult (@soult) June 2, 2016
As I told The Guardian back in August, the takeover of old BHS sites is likely to be slow and piecemeal – partly because retailers like Wilko (24 ex-Woolworths), H&M (22), TK Maxx (9) and Primark (8) already used the demise of Woolworths to plug key gaps in their store networks.
Consequently, these and other retailers are now represented in most of the locations where BHS’s demise has brought further space on to the market.
B&M itself already has over 50 ex-Woolies sites under its belt, though many – as here in the North East – are in small to medium-sized towns such as Whitley Bay, Stockton-on-Tees and Chester-le-Street, rather than the large towns and cities that BHS tended to inhabit. (Incidentally, those figures for the re-use of old Woolworths stores are from my own research, where I maintain a database of what each of the 807 ex-Woolworths sites has become, including any changes in subsequent occupancy.)
The fate of ex-BHS stores will, I’m sure, be revisited plenty of times in this blog over the next few years, but it’s fair to say that B&M is one of the retailers most likely to pick up a significant chunk of sites. Even then, I doubt we’re looking at more than 20; acquisitions by others, like Primark, are more likely to be well into single figures.
And how’s Hartlepool doing?
Far from all bad in Hartlepool: UK's first brand-new TJ Hughes under new ownership; one of three NE Pep&Co stores https://t.co/WA3LD5mZp1
— Graham Soult (@soult) May 23, 2016
Hartlepool is a somewhat unusual town in that there is no high street to speak of – the entire town centre, previously based around Lynn Street, had relocated to its current Middleton Grange location by 1970, meaning that the vast majority of the town centre’s retail space falls within the management of the shopping centre.
It’s also one of those towns that seems to get routinely clobbered every time the Local Data Company publishes its data on nationwide vacancy rates, with up to a quarter of its units flagged as empty in the past.
However, as I pointed out in a BBC Tees interview earlier this week, I always feel that the town deserves more credit for the way that it has consistently bounced back from adversity in recent years.
- BHS: Though BHS’s takeover of the ex-Woolworths site failed to have a happy ending, the investment made delivered significant improvements to the layout, appearance and appeal of the store – as seen in the pictures above. These changes most likely precipitated its speedy reletting to B&M, which will now get the benefit from them.
- TJ Hughes: In 2011, Hartlepool’s Westgate department store closed after it was one of a handful not included in the acquisition by Beales. However, TJ Hughes took over the site in 2014 for its first brand-new store under its new ownership. Meanwhile, the two ex-Westgate stores in the North East that Beales ‘rescued’ – in Redcar and Bishop Auckland – are closing down.
- H&M: Marks & Spencer closing its Hartlepool town centre in 2015 was undoubtedly a big blow, but the mall-facing space is now back in use as H&M, with a gym upstairs. Elsewhere in the region, in contrast, the ex-M&S stores in Redcar and South Shields remain empty, though there was speculation this summer that variety retailer Boyes was interested in the South Shields site.
— Graham Soult (@soult) August 12, 2015
- Pep&Co: Though not an especially large unit (unlike the BHS, H&M and TJ Hughes premises), Hartlepool securing one of the first 50 Pep&Co stores last year – out of the 350 towns that Pep&Co’s bosses looked at – was something of a coup.
Let’s be clear – there is still more empty space in Hartlepool than is ideal. However, vacancy rates are reducing, and Middleton Grange would clearly be in a far worse position had it not successfully secured these new lettings for three of its largest units.
What’s the secret? Well, investment in bringing in new retailers – facilitated by some strategic relocations to optimise the shopping centre’s space – has certainly delivered dividends. The centre’s management, led by Mark Rycraft, is also proactive in organising events that drive footfall, and relentlessly pushing a positive marketing message. Future activity, I suspect, may include further diversifying the centre’s offer to include more leisure uses, and striking the right balance on the contentious issue of parking charges.
B&M might not be the upmarket name that some would like to see in Hartlepool, but as a vote of confidence in the town – and a store that will certainly prove popular – its arrival can only be a good thing.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including coverage of all retail sectors and areas of the UK. It also works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores and marketing. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.